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Interview with Dyanna Jaye, Sunrise Movement, 2019 Visionary Leaders Award Recipient

Only one week left until the 2019 PSR Visionary Leaders Awards on November 7! We are delighted to honor several outstanding individuals and organizations who are working to abolish nuclear weapons and to address environmental hazards to health, including the climate crisis.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is delighted to honor Sunrise Movement, a youth-led nonprofit organization that advocates political action on climate change, at the PSR Visionary Leaders Awards. Sunrise Movement was founded on the East Coast in 2015 and launched as a 501(c)(4) in 2017.

Dyanna Jaye, Co-founder and Organizing Director of Sunrise Movement, will be accepting the award on the organization’s behalf. PSR asked Dyanna about how she came to do this work, what inspires her, and her advice for young people just starting to get involved in advocacy.

Q: What first drew you to this type of work?

I grew up in coastal Virginia, in Hampton Roads, Virginia, low-level, by the sea, and very much affected by climate change. Growing up, I watched my city spend millions of dollars every year pumping sand back onto our beaches as they faded away every year. They’d send these huge tubes out to the ocean to suck up the sand. I watched them at a young age, and also watched how my city would make choices and saw communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, who dealt over and over again with floodwaters, while that sand that was pumped onto beaches was sent mostly to tourist locations and to wealthy beachfront properties. And that’s how I really got to understand the climate crisis, was in a way that was very close to home and very much about exacerbating the inequalities around me. So, I started working on climate change as something that felt very personal and close to home, and it was always about protecting the place that I love and believing that no one should have to live in fear of losing the place that they come from and call home.

And so, I got my start that way, and then, in 2015, I had the honor and the ability to lead a youth delegation to the United Nations climate negotiations, COP 21, in Paris, France. It was a project I worked on all year, to lead this delegation of young people to this big moment of the signing of the Paris Agreement. Really, in that moment of what should have felt like celebration, I ended up feeling really devastated, because I felt so clear-eyed about how far we were from those goals that the world agreed to, and I felt really clear-eyed that, in order to get there, we needed a social movement that was at a scale in participation and disruptiveness that we hadn’t seen before. So, that was how we began to build Sunrise. We carried that home from COP 21 and started studying social movements and drawing up the team that started to build Sunrise.

Q: How have the health impacts of climate crisis-related policies informed your work?

In this—and I haven’t worked a lot in the realm of health, to be honest—I saw this really also in Virginia, and continuing the story of the ways that climate change felt really close to home, I spent some time in southwest Virginia, when I was in college. A practice that we have in Virginia is mountaintop removal coal mining, and as a student, I took a number of trips out to southwest Virginia to see and witness the impacts of what mountaintop removal coal mining does, which is removing the tops of mountains to mine the seams of coal within, and I saw how that has just devastated our communities and left people with poisoned water and created cancer clusters in the region. That was kind of the first wake-up call that was particularly tied to health that I saw, and it completed this picture in my mind of what we’re looking at with the climate crisis, where the southwest part of my state is toxic waters and blown up mountains and mining coal and then where I come from, in the eastern part of my state, leading to floods that tear apart communities and make them unlivable. That’s where that started with me, and obviously, the more I’ve gotten involved in the movement, I think it’s one of the strongest angles that we have to connect to people on why this matters and have conversations about everyone deserving clean air and clean water.

Q: What would be your advice to another young person just starting to get involved in this type of work?

I think my advice, honestly, would be that there are no adults in the room, which is a lesson I learned over years. Especially in my early twenties, I kept looking for someone else to have the plan, to build the mass movement that could rise up to the climate crisis, for somebody to have the vision of the policy that would save us. The process that I went through that led me to build Sunrise was really this internal reckoning and realization that we have the responsibility to do that, and for us, the team that built Sunrise, it was a process of taking that responsibility and saying that we are the people who can lead this work, even though we’re all young, and believe in the power of our generation. So, I think that, although it may be cynical, my advice would be that there are no adults in the room, and actually, it will be, I believe, our generation—it’s on the movement building and this vision of the world that we can build a better future, together.

Q: When it comes to changes or advances in climate policies, what is your greatest hope for the coming year?

My hope for the year is that—I do actually feel really hopeful, and I think that’s what unique about Sunrise—this deep, passionate hope that fuels so much of our movement building. It’s in our name, that we are Sunrise, and we can change this country and this world, sure as the sun rises each morning. We wanted to have a movement that was rooted in hope, because we think that that’s really powerful, and it’s also tangible and exists to people—do you have hope that we can go through and tackle the climate crisis and build stronger communities and a healthier world? So, I do feel hope, and I feel hopeful that we can actually deliver a mandate to the next Congressional administration, the next president, to make a Green New Deal a “Day One” priority, and if I could have one thing that we would win on, it would be to elect a president and Congress that is ready to implement the Green New Deal and not just see it as one piece of legislation, but to implement the governing agenda of the Green New Deal and to unite the country in this mission and vision over the next decade to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and create millions of good jobs through all of the work that we need to do to stop the climate crisis. I hope that we can do that.

Q: Who or what is your greatest inspiration to do the work that you do?

So many people inspire me. I think, though, that one of the biggest inspirations to me as an organizer and as a leader, and who I still study every day, is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that led the sit-in movement against segregation in the South in the ‘60s. When we were building Sunrise, we studied lots of different social movements and tried to distill theories and practices that led to those movements’ growth and success and to adopt them into our own, and one of those movements that we studied a lot was SNCC. There’s this quote in a movie about SNCC and the movement, and one of the things about the movement’s intent was that they ran these sit-ins and engaged lots of people, but they also did deep and expansive voter registration throughout the South, and led the charge to register voters, especially in less-valued and neglected areas in the South. And they would bring students from across the country to do that work and send them for the summer, and they ran a program called Freedom Summer where they sent students throughout the South. One of the organizers who’s interviewed in the film called Freedom Summer, said: I don’t want anyone to think we were all brave and courageous and that that was going on here. She said, The honest truth is that we were just young and foolish. That’s something that always stuck with me, because that’s something that’s the spirit that we aspire to at Sunrise, this useful ability to take risks, we’re willing to sit in Nancy Pelosi’s office and willing to deliver the urgency of the climate crisis to the doorstep of every politician in America, and that there’s a useful and foolish energy about that. We still study a lot of the work that SNCC did to model how our movement grows.